Donald Trump has uttered a striking number of false claims about the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re very close to a vaccine,” he declared on February 25. On February 28, just before an explosion in cases, he told Americans that the virus would soon disappear, “like a miracle.” In early March, long before the typical person could get tested for COVID-19, Trump told Americans that anyone who wanted a test for the disease could get one. On March 24, he asserted that a shutdown lasting months was untenable in part because suicides “definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.”
Trump critics cite those falsehoods and many others as evidence that the president is lying. Americans watch his briefings “in search of life-or-death information,” The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, but instead they get “exaggeration and outright lies.” The MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said, “If the president does end up saying anything true, you can run it as tape. But if he keeps lying like he has been … all of us should stop broadcasting it.” David Lurie wrote in The Daily Beast that “Trump lies as a matter of habit, but in the midst of the pandemic his lies can kill.”
But what if Trump isn’t lying? Americans ought to consider an alternative explanation for the president’s many untruths: He does not grasp the most basic aspects of the public-health crisis.
Cluelessness may, for example, better explain Trump’s statements on the expected COVID-19 death toll. On April 10, Trump said that the final number of U.S. deaths could be as few as 55,000, a mark the country surpassed before the end of that month. A week later, Trump said that the death toll would maybe reach 65,000, even as deaths rose at a rate that meant that mark would be overtaken within weeks. On April 27, when coronavirus deaths numbered about 56,000, Trump again reiterated lowball estimates, declaring, “We’re probably heading to 60,000 or 70,000.” By April 29, the death toll was about 63,000. That same day, Trump mused that total deaths would be “65 or 70 or 60 or whatever the final number will be.” Only after those opportunities to learn from past mistakes did Trump say, “Hopefully, we’re going to come in below that 100,000 lives lost, which is a horrible number nevertheless.” And that 100,000 figure? The New York Times noted at the time that it “underestimates what his own administration is now predicting to be the total death toll by the end of May.”
Why did Trump keep offering estimates so unrealistically low that they were overtaken by events mere weeks later, exposing him to mockery and providing fodder for attack ads? Lies are typically self-serving. Those statements were not. If he was trying to lowball death estimates so that Americans would reelect him, he needed to pick a number that wouldn’t be exceeded until after Election Day. Whether he intended to lie or attempted to tell the truth, he showed an inability to think just weeks ahead in an emergency that could last months or years.
Similarly, why did Trump declare that the virus would disappear when its spread was imminent? Why did he say we’re close to a vaccine when Americans are unlikely to get one before Election Day? Why did he suggest that injecting a disinfectant into the body might cure COVID-19? I used to worry that Trump’s serial mendacity might harm the nation. Now I worry even more that he isn’t lying, but rather lacks the capacity to see errors in the most obvious falsehoods. He appears to be so impulsive and attuned to the time horizon of an individual tweet, television appearance, or news cycle that he cannot strategize over a longer period.
Some Americans are willing to forgive lies from the president, but even they shouldn’t shrug off the possibility that Trump simply doesn’t understand the pandemic clearly enough to respond to it effectively.
“She tested positive out of the blue,” Trump said when a press secretary for the vice president tested positive for COVID-19. “This is why the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test––where it’s good, and then something happens, and all of a sudden––she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive.”
Does Trump even comprehend that testing negative for a disease, getting it, and later testing positive illustrates no problem with testing? The “something” that happened was an infection, the very thing tests are meant to catch.
The pandemic “was something nobody thought could happen,” Trump said. “Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened.” Maybe that was a lie. Or maybe Trump was ignorant of all the warnings from infectious-disease experts and officials from prior administrations. America has “developed a testing capacity unmatched and unrivaled anywhere in the world,” Trump said, “and it’s not even close.” Maybe he really believes that, or maybe he doesn’t get that testing capacity should be measured on a per capita basis.
Trump’s reputation for lying is well deserved. But many of the most glaring untruths that he has uttered during this crisis could be explained by ignorance and lack of foresight as easily as mendacity.
At 73, Trump is unlikely to stop his decades-long habit of lying. But assuming that all of his pandemic untruths are lies may obscure the degree to which he’s out of his depth. Is he fit to preside over the high-stakes effort to secure and roll out a vaccine? The many failures of understanding implied by his statements suggest that he is not.